Redi Abazi, an 8th grade math teacher from Derby Middle School and Birmingham resident, died in his home Monday afternoon after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.
Abazi, 32, who has been with the district since 2006, was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer in March 2010. Abazi leaves behind his wife Lindsay of nine years and three children: Tommy (5), Sarah (3) and Matthew (21 months).
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Highland Park Baptist Church in Southfield, with a visitation to be held at 9:30 a.m.
According to Faye Thomas, ministries director for Highland Park, Abazi's death wasn't entirely unexpected and the family had been preparing for some time.
Lindsay Abazi said that while the moment was incredibly painful, she was happy her husband was surrounded by his family when he passed Monday afternoon.
"It was very peaceful and wonderful," she said.
According to Lindsay's sister, Emily Emrick of Birmingham, Abazi's death doesn't necessarily mean the end for this close family. "Lindsay and the kids had a sweet time together saying their goodbyes, knowing that they will be reunited again one day in Heaven," she said.
Born to be a teacher
Of Albanian descent, Abazi grew up in Albania then attended Masters College in Santa Carita, CA, before moving to Michigan. His wife Lindsay Abazi, originally from Bloomfield Hills, also attended Masters College but she said the pair officially met back in Albania on a college mission trip. They later married but moved back Michigan to be closer to her family.
In Michigan, the couple joined Highland Park Baptist Church where Abazi taught an adult class for young married couples. Lindsay Abazi began working at the church's school — Southfield Christian School — as a middle school English teacher.
Derby students were informed of the news at a special assembly Tuesday afternoon. Derby principal Debbie Hubbell said the Derby community has supported Abazi since the cancer was discovered through a variety of fundraisers and special events, including a used book sale going on now
“Our entire school has been united in these caring actions and so many more. The next few hours and days will be sad ones for us all," Hubbell said. "There are some people who learn to be teachers, and there are those who are born teachers. Redi was a born teacher."
Lindsay Abazi said her husband was studying ministry in order to be a pastor, but couldn't help his love of math and teaching. "I think even more than math, he loved the students," she said.
Jonathon Chappell, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Derby, said Abazi was an inspiration to them all.
"He always put the kids first," said Chappell, who just happened to wearing his red "Team Abazi" t-shirt Tuesday. The shirts were passed out during Derby's "Red for Redi" day April 1, 2010. Chappell said he woke up Tuesday morning thinking of the friend with whom he ate lunch every week.
"He was a teacher kind of teacher. He set the bar high for all of us," Chappell said.
Hubbell said Abazi was a teacher born to inspire kids, whether it was through his offbeat humor, to his willingness to be available to his students, to his technological prowess that he utilized in the classroom every day.
Finding hope in dark moments
Even during his darkest moments, Abazi found a way to laugh. Abazi's treatment was chronicled in a journal on CaringBridge.org. As a soccer fan, Abazi lamented there that his surgeries last summer were scheduled during World Cup matches.
"I don't think my surgeon likes soccer, (as my German oncologist does), otherwise he may have scheduled his surgery around the game schedules. Oh well, at least he won't be distracted!"
Hubbell said Abazi's death was a shock for both the teaching community and students at Derby, but one they had been preparing for for some time. Lindsay Abazi said her husband had his stomach removed last year but they later discovered the cancer had spread beyond help. He had emergency surgery in April and was treated at the Karmanos Cancer Center, but had recently been moved home and into hospice care.
Less than a month before he passed away, Abazi was still updating the Caring Bridges website himself and was optimistic about the life he led.
"I never imagined I would be bound to a bed so early in life. At the same time, I'm sort of learning to count all my blessings — even from lying down here."
Hubbell said grief counselors will be available to students throughout the week. To honor both Abazi and the late Nick Deane, Seaholm's head football coach who died of a heart attack last Monday, superintendent David Larson called for a moment of silence at the Tuesday meeting of the Birmingham Board of Education.
"These losses have been on our minds and the minds of our teachers and students," Larson said. "It's a very trying time for everyone."